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Experience and energy poised to strengthen family business voice

Scott Mcculloch is editor of Families in Business

As a head honcho of a leading Swedish business newspaper, Hans-Jacob Bonnier has years of experience at the helm of a successful family business. This stands him in good stead as chairman of the Family Business Network, writes Scott McCulloch

Should you manage to pin down Hans-Jacob Bonnier, chances are it will be in an airport departure lounge or on his mobile phone dashing to an important business meeting. Nisse, as he's known among friends and colleagues, has chosen the hectic life. As executive vice-president of Sweden's leading business daily Dagens Industri, part of the 200-year old Bonnier Group, his time is measured and dispensed in tiny increments.

Hans-Jacob turns 57 this year and claims he will retire from his executive duties at 60. Although a virus kept him from participating in last winter's Vasallopet (Sweden's famous 90km cross-country ski race) he's showing few signs of slowing down.

Retirement is a few years off and Hans-Jacob intends to keep his hand in at the sixth-generation family business. He'll remain active "somewhere in governance" come retirement. "I will try and keep my voice present as I always have done. I myself listened to my father and his brothers until the day they died. But running around like I've been doing today? No, I think I'll do something else."

Something else could be golf or sailing, even the simple pleasure of curling up with a good book on his "little islet" – one of the more than 20,000 that dot Stockholm's archipelago. These days he's reading an 800-page tome on Joseph Stalin. I ask him when he finds the time. "Before the lights go out."

Although an expert in time management, chances are the irrepressible Hans-Jacob will have his hands full in his latest role as chairman of the Family Business Network.

FIB You were recently appointed chairman of the FBN. What is your vision for the organisation?

H-JB I want it to become a voice of family business owners in society, the advocacy of family business.

FIB Is that not the case at present?

H-JB Yes, but in some countries less than others. For example, in Finland and Spain the Family Business Network has become important; they have become a voice. But in other countries it has not been strong enough. Surely education and research is needed to present strong arguments for establishing better conditions in society for family businesses.

FIB How did you discover the Family Business Network?

H-JB It was through my brother Carl-Johan. He had been on a course in Lausanne at IMD (Institute for Management Development) and said this was something we ought to do in order to handle the succession after my uncle Albert passed away. Uncle Albert was a fascinating man and a strong leader of his generation. He was running the business while I was growing up. He was my father's oldest brother and he was managing everything. He was more or less the general assembly, the board and the management all in one.

So I went to Lausanne in 1991 with a few of my cousins, learnt a lot from the latest research about family business, met people from different countries who were in the same situation as us and gained insight. It was an eye opener. Back home again after some time we began to restructure Bonnier's governance. Our shareholders' agreement was going to end so we negotiated a new one, which took some years to fulfil, and eventually all shareholders approved and signed the documents.

FIB Did you join the organisation then and there?

H-JB We didn't join at that time. We got the knowledge, the know-how of how to behave and how put to use the advice we gained. That started the process. We might have done things differently had we not had that insight. Later, in 1995, Bonnier was used as a case study at an FBN world conference in Madrid. [Professor] Ivan Lansberg developed a case study about our business. That's when I started to talk to some people to try and form an FBN chapter in Sweden. That was really the start of my getting into the Family Business Network.

FIB Are you pleased with your decision?

H-JB Yes. I think it has been fruitful and interesting. That was in September 1995 in Madrid. We started the chapter in Sweden in the autumn of 1996.

FIB What was the Madrid case?

H-JB The sixth generation at Bonnier. The question was how to plan our future. It was actually the second case written about our company. The first case was written in the beginning of the 1980s by Manfred Kets de Vries of [the MBA school] Insead.

FIB The composition of the FBN's board changed last year. There are fewer members from the academic world. How do you describe this transition?

H-JB Logical and natural. The network is growing and its growth is not being driven by academics but by family business people and family businesses. This is what it is all about.

FIB What can you tell me about this year's conference in Brussels?

H-JB It is divided into two days: a private day and a public day. The private day comprises family business visits. The conference will be divided into ten teams going to different families where we're invited. There will be a moderator and there will be cases run on-site at each family business. We've never done this before. As for the public day, it has been a mixture in the past. We've had a lot of consultants and other people from the family business world, but we've not been terribly successful in inviting politicians. But now we are in Brussels; this is the place to try to tell them what family business and entrepreneurship is all about.

FIB In one sentence, what is the raison d'être of the FBN?

H-JB By families, for families.

FIB How has your exposure to the FBN helped you manage your business?

H-JB There are two things really that struck me: first, it was the ability to clearly see and define the different 'hats', to separate the different roles – owner, employee, family member, board, foundation, executive and so on. Another thing might be the ability to realise new and/or possible structures for governance to continue the family business for another 200 years.

FIB How can family companies improve their chances of surviving robustly?

H-JB Through education and networking.

FIB Should education be aimed mainly at the younger generation?

H-JB No, education is for all. I know a lot of people older than 80 who need education. You should always educate yourself. The 'know-how' elements of family businesses and the factors that influence them were not really discovered or researched until 15 years ago. Yet research revealed that few family businesses made it through long periods – not because of products or market conditions but rather because of bad chemistry between people, bad planning and so forth.

FIB It has been said that strong family businesses have strong boards – boards that include a healthy proportion of outside directors. Do you agree?

H-JB It's complex. A good balance is the best option.

FIB What is the right balance?

H-JB It's difficult to say. Independent, knowledgeable, directors are necessary if you want to have the board work properly, but independent and professional family members representing the owners are also necessary. You should not lose the family business advantages and character, but a majority of external directors is probably a good balance.

FIB Family businesses combine all the tensions of family life with all the stresses of business life. At no moment do both sorts of stress combine so forcefully as at that of generational change. How do you overcome this struggle?

H-JB Listen and talk. Have a transparent agenda and fair process so that everybody feels they are being handled in fairly.

FIB Do you operate this way at Bonnier?

H-JB Yes.

FIB Is it difficult to align the vision of the younger generation with the older one?

H-JB When you turn the company over to the next generation, normally there are some beliefs among the older generation about the how things should be done. In my generation we have all agreed to run the company family owned. Perhaps you can say that our structure is 'being unstructured'.
The decision of what to do with the company in the future will be in the hands of the next generation. We don't want to lock it into a set of rules or anything like that. We're servants of free speech; that's what we do. We have democratic and liberal views and that's why we believe that we cannot take decisions for the future of the next generation, it's up to them.

Bonnier, fbn, q&a, Sweden
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